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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Can we balance energy development and natural systems?

Development of natural gas and wind resources in the six-state Marcellus shale region could damage nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study looked at energy development in parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia.  It predicts that over 106,000 new gas wells will be drilled in the Marcellus region – a conservative estimate, in my view. There are projections of Marcellus drilling that are almost twice that in Pennsylvania alone. It also projects that almost 11,000 new wind turbines will be built in the region.

The study found that each gas well pad and the roads, pipelines, and infrastructure associated with it impacts 50 acres of land, and that each wind turbine impacts 15 acres of land. Almost 85% of the 1.3 million acres damaged by the projected gas and wind development - 1.1 million acres – is forest land. That landscape industrialization will significantly affect habitats, recreation, aesthetics, historical and cultural resources, and – critically - local watersheds.

The study found: 
This increase in surface disturbance and fragmentation will potentially impact the maintenance of biodiversity and the quality of surface water resources for ~22 million people [including New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia & Pittsburgh]. The increase in energy production forecasted by our analysis may be compatible with biodiversity if properly sited, but will still pose a challenge for surface water resources, both because of the strong link between surface water quality and surface disturbance and because of the high value for water production for watersheds in the study area.  
The Marcellus Shale represents one of the fastest growing shale deposits in the world. With both wind and shale gas projected to expand dramatically in coming decades predicting patterns and impacts in the Marcellus could serve as a model for development that is likely to be replicated globally. Already, Argentina, Australia, China, and Colombia have identified large shale gas deposits that are in the planning stages of development. The impacts from individual gas wells/wind turbines or even those of a single wind farm or gas field are likely to be manageable and compatible with broader landscape level conservation goals. Our analysis reveals it will be the cumulative impacts that pose the greatest challenge for landscape level conservation goals. Unfortunately assessment of environmental impacts are (sic) made well by well or gas field by gas field with little or no attempt to assess cumulative impacts. Scenarios and scenario analysis [what I’ve referred to as landscape-level planning] have become popular approaches in pursuit of sustainable development. However, they are little used, at least in any formal way, in environmental impact assessment (EIA). Fostering the use of scenario modeling, like the approach outlined here, can allow regulators to examine the potential consequences of development objectives quickly and inexpensively. We conclude by encouraging EIA practitioners to learn about the promise of scenario-based analysis and implement scenario-based methods so that EIA can become more effective in fostering sustainable development.
Will the states in the Marcellus region be smart enough to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the immense landscape impacts from both natural gas and wind energy development?  Will these states model sustainable development to the world?

The questions are big.  The stakes are high.  And the answers concerning shale gas development especially (with the very notable exception of Maryland) are so far not encouraging at all.

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